Thursday 18 August 2022

[REVIEW] Colour of the Void

Colour of the Void
Colour of the Void (2022)

by Gizmo_the_Bugbear


“for use with any level adventurer because they’re all doomed anyway”

It is not fair. Mörk Borg modules are not noted for their high quality. Most barely rise above the level of crummy, and being “style over substance” is the least of their problems. I do not generally review them. Is it fair then to drag a random specimen into the limelight and savage it? No. I suppose not. But then random encounters are not fair. I bought Colour of the Void because it looked a cut above the norm – 24 pages seemed more substantial than usual, and something about the front cover looked promising. In fact, it is a lot like all the other Mörk Borg modules I have seen, with the same problems, so a general case can be made.


Let us start with the layout. Following the convention established in the rulebook, the module is a riot of colour splashes, arbitrary font selection, and scratchy artwork (some homemade, some publicly sourced). Yes, this is part of the design style. No, it does not make for good reading or reference, it is a massive waste of printer ink, and it is a way to skimp on the actual content while inflating the page count. Colour of the Void is not as bad here as other Mörk Borg offerings, but it is pretty bad all right. Some of it is meant to convey horror with its disintegrating texts, but, let’s be honest, this has been done a myriad times, it is a waste of space, and it does not in fact make the adventure better.

Where are your loops
now, MORTAL?!
The adventure itself follows a fairly standard structure in modern module design. The kidnapping of a village girl leads to a cave, which in turn leads to a larger tomb dungeon holding the body of a lost king and the girl, then stuff happens and there is a big final battle – scene-based rollercoaster design hammered into the location-based hole. If only there was a design philosophy that could do good location-based adventures… we might call it a design school, a fairly old one at that, but… nope. There are no decision points of note. It is as linear as it can get, and things are either decided for you, they don’t matter, or they offer a false dilemma (e.g. you could just not go on the mission; or you could go either way in a cavern, but only one of these paths leads forward). This is not a good recipe for an interactive game; it is the telling of a clichéd and tired story.

On the individual encounter level, things generally happen to the players. In a dark tunnel, “[t]he PC’s all lost one possession at random whilst stumbling through the tunnel [sic].” There are no stakes here. It is made clear that it happens whether the party has torches or not. Elsewhere, things happen based on die rolls – you can literally slip and die, as “The walls are thick with shards of sheer rock, vengeful in their nature.”, and that requires a DR12 agility check to avoiding 1d4 damage, ignoring armour. Player input is not really considered, or required in any of the encounters – they are passive observers who sometimes roll dice in combat or to see if they are harmed by a specific trap or effect.

This, my darling, is
the Zybourne Clock
There are occasional good bits. In the beginning, a random chart for the villagers giving you something to help with the mission – mostly useless things like “1d4 hours of water”, “bread”, or “a concerned handshake and thanks”. This is good colour, showing how badly outclassed these losers are. Sometimes, it is grimdark absurdity, which kind of fits Mörk Borg’s black metal sources. “Fingernails are embedded in the wall and b l o o d  d r i p s out of the room.” Shadowy corridors stretch on forever, and when you turn, you find you have not moved (or you are suddenly elsewhere). There is a pretty cool treasure room trap, where every single piece of loot taken out of the place suddenly becomes super-heavy. Not that you would be stupid enough to believe there are real treasure rooms in a game like Mörk Borg. And not that it is stated in the text that you cannot put down those pieces of treasure to just shrug and continue. This is what good technical writing would do, but we have long ago abandoned those pretences. But the core idea, there is something there.

What else? There is of course a boss battle set up with a cutscene, and followed by a fight sequence (the undead king has an “obliteration beam” that sounds rather neat, although it basically only does 1d6+2 points. There is a neat illustration, and another cutscene: “Upon his demise, the King’s atoms are absorbed into the ether forever. His tomb begins to collapse. The void stone is weakened and vulnerable.” Of course, the rollercoaster ride doesn’t end here - ghouls are awakened, you escape the collapsing tomb, but the town is attacked by an UNDEAD VOID PLAGUED ARMY (I can’t reproduce the blood-dripping font on this blog, sorry), led by the girl they wanted to save. Here, there is a decent doom clock mechanic, where every action to rally the townsfolk, ask for more information, and so on, advances the clock as the horde of undead draws closer, and you can conduct your second boss battle.

And that is Mörk Borg’s module design problem. This coffee table book, lauded for its particular aesthetic and awarded every medal on Earth (perhaps almost as many as that apex of our age, Thirsty Sword Lesbians), somehow continues to encourage the production of these absolute duds, and this can no longer be handwaved away. There is certainly abundant chaff in the general old-school scene, but there is also abundant wheat – where are the great Mörk Borg offerings? Where is the bedrock of those which are at least halfway competent? What is there beyond the superficial draw of the yellow-black covers? There is nothing there because there is no strong design ethic behind Mörk Borg, and no craft in its GM guidance. Repeated attempts do not produce excellence, just more chaff. I bet they don't even keep strict time records. Divorced from the tried (although surely not universal) principles of old-school gaming, the game is an untethered edifice of straw, gone with the first strong wind. Colour of the Void is just a sad manifestation of its fundamental weakness.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: * / *****

Friday 5 August 2022

[REVIEW] Into the Great Rift

Into the Great Rift
[BEYONDE] Into the Great Rift (2022)

by Joseph Bloch

Published by BRW Games

Levels 5-7

Into the Great Rift is a compact, 18-page wilderness and dungeon adventure on the vanilla/utilitarian end of the scale, designed for AD&D (this of course means “Adventures Dark and Deep”, also by BRW Games), and presenting the first part of what promises to be an entire module series set in the Great Rift. This enormous, Grand Canyon-style depression is an untamed land of dust, shifting rubble and towering mesas, populated by monsters and bandit gangs, and overlooked by a silver mining town called Cleftwall – one imagines a little bit of Wild West in the middle of the setting. You could easily place the Great Rift in your own campaign world; and if that world were the World of Greyhawk, the map of the rift would neatly conform to the shape and size of the Rift Canyon in the Bandit Kingdoms, Cleftwall slotting into the place of Rift Crag. What an interesting coincidence!

The adventure site is more “place to visit” than “plot to follow”, always a refreshing thing. Quakes have opened up previously hidden cave entrances in the Rift, with promises of riches and mystery. Following a rumours chart with compelling entries and a very brief description of Cleftwall, the module is divided into two sections. The wilderness of the Great Rift is represented by a decent random encounter chart from prospectors and bandits to leucrota trying to lure in the foolhardy (some from the MM2, like margoyles and galeb-duhr), and a brief encounter key to 21 wilderness sites. This is a bit on the dry side, and more overview than detailed look – entries are often to the tune of “There are a number of worked-out mines at the base of the tor that are now home to various monsters”, or “The ruins of an ancient Phlen city built into the very walls of the canyon”, where something more specific and interesting could have been added. It is a promising base for your own imagination, but obviously requires some assembly – and in this case, as the Wilderlands shows us, a bit more specificity is what can set the imagination on fire.

The module’s main attraction lies in the New Caverns. The earthquake-opened cave system is a gridlike, three-level network of long corridors and generally small halls; not very impressive on a first look, but nicely spiced up with multiple entrances, level connections, and the odd multi-level cavern. It is an initially simple structure with more complexity than meets the eye. There is scarcely any empty space, however, which is a bit of a shame. The inhabitants consist of two intelligent factions; a derro outpost maintaining a slave mine and the depot for a flying ship (a nice touch of weirdness in what is a fairly standard “monster hotel” setup), and a gnoll tribe who have moved in to claim part of the tunnels as their own. Additionally, there are a few monsters drifting up from the underworld to fill up the space, including a spider lair, and a pair of ogre magi slavers intending to recapture “stolen” property from the derro.

This 49-room dungeon is kind of a mixed bag. It is at its worst when entries simply describe terrain instead of interaction potential. “The passage curves away lightly to the right, making it impossible to see into the cave more than 20 feet or so from the outside” this is mostly evident from the map. There are occasions of background colour which will never be discovered by the players, and deliberately so. The derro leader (savant) “wears a signet ring with the symbol of the Red College, but no one outside the Derro would know the significance; it otherwise appears as an ordinary ruby ring worth 1,000 g.p.” Everything about this ring, its significance, or the Red College will be hidden from the players’ prying eyes, so the detail might as well be omitted.

The humanoid lairs are better – they are guarded appropriately, there are multiple access points (although almost all are narrow corridors), and the opponents have access to special forces with interesting capabilities, like the derros’ enslaved hill giant, or the gnoll chief’s hunting hyenadons. This is fairly standard AD&D fare, but well executed. I can’t help but think the best parts are the oddities, especially in the further, more out of the way corners of the caverns – a colony of cave-dwelling land coral, a mysterious iron head who will speak enigmas, or a cavern of living crystals. These underworld mysteries are outstanding, and we can only hope there will be more of them in further parts of this series.

Into the Great Rift is a decent modular scenario. Straight, to the point, modular – a bit lacking in the oomph that makes something truly great, but it squeezes a lot of stuff into 18 pages (the entire dungeon takes only six), and much of that stuff is decent. If you are looking for utilitarian campaign materials, or something to expand on, this is nice. You could even place The Bone Place of Drelb into the Great Rift. Why not?

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****